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Summary Jury Trials: Justice or Just Fast?

Human tendency is to want immediately everything that can be obtained immediately. We like one hour photo-labs, microwave ovens, overnight mail, same day dry cleaning, and fast food. Well, as proof that the wheels of justice don’t always turn slowly, our beloved court system has developed the summary jury trial also referred to as the “SJT.” An SJT is an alternative dispute resolution technique that has been around for years but is now gaining increasing use around the country and certainly in New York. It is a break from the regular trial system and can afford a litigant several benefits.

The particular technique of which I have had personal involvement has been the “Binding SJT” in which the parties try the case to a binding verdict rather than simply engaging in a non binding mock trial. The binding SJT’s are generally one or two days in length. The parties stipulate as a prerequisite that each litigant will be bound by the jury’s verdict. The right to move to set aside the verdict may be waived or strictly limited to instances where, for example, fraud was used to obtain the verdict, or there is an error of law that occurred during the trial, or a miscalculation of figures occurred.

The first day of the trial is generally used as an evidentiary hearing for purposes of determining which documents and witnesses the jury will learn about and/or hear from during then trial. Related medical treatment records as well as the plaintiff’s and defendant’s expert medical reports are usually stipulated to be admissible. This generally saves money for the both the plaintiffs and defendants. Day two consists of jury selection and the trial. The presentation of evidence and arguments made by the attorneys are governed by strictly enforced time limits to ensure that the entire case is presented and the jury gets the case the same day for deliberation.

My initial impression of the summary jury trial was that it was too quick. To some degree I wanted to saturate the jury with a view of my injured plaintiff so they could see for themselves my client’s sincerity. The fact of the matter is that people form impressions whether they see your client for one day or five so the client should simply put his/her best foot forward. For the lawyer who always wants to add one more sentence to an already verbose argument, the SJT requires precise and succinct speech. Sometimes the less said is the best said, but when working with a short amount of time to present it is always better to follow the old saying: “keep it simple stupid” or “KISS.”

My final concern was: who really benefits from these streamlined cases? Is the court satisfied in its objective to conserve judicial resources? Are more defendants or plaintiffs winning? I am happy to report that the process is a good one, and that in this instance, fast can still mean fair. At our firm we have tried SJT cases in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. We have been appropriately selective about which cases we submit to Binding SJT and the results speak for themselves. We have been victorious every time.

In closing, it’s always good to keep your options open and this is certainly an option worth considering
By Lennon Edwards